In Henry David Thoreau’s account of his journey up Mt. Ktaadn, originally published in The Maine Woods in 1864, there is a particular moment when the usual categories for describing experience seem to fall short, when language itself strains under the weight of trying to encompass the experience: “What is this Titan that has possession of me? Talk of mysteries!—Think of our life in nature,—daily to be shown matter, to come in contact with it,—rocks, trees, wind on our cheeks! The solid earth! the actual world! the common sense! Contact! Contact! Who are we? where are we?”1 Contact. Such a simple word. Deceptively simple. Here, it points to a phenomenon both fundamental and elusive: the sense of being taken up into a mysterious reality utterly necessary but forever beyond our comprehension. And, in Thoreau’s account anyway, its incomprehensible character is part of what makes it so necessary. It cannot be encompassed, held, known. It is endless, and endlessly absorbing.
Thoreau’s account focuses on his experience in the natural world, in particular the strange otherness he feels moving up and into the wilderness of Mt. Ktaddn. It is closely bound to an understanding of the wild that had always been dear to him and owes much to the distinctive intellectual, cultural climate of American transcendentalism that so deeply shaped his thought. Still, it also bears a close resemblance to many other accounts, in the Christian spiritual tradition and beyond, of what we have come to think of as mystical absorption. In the Christian spiritual tradition, one thinks for example of Origen, in his commentary and homilies on the Song of Songs, trying to give expression to what it is to be pierced by the “dart of love”; of Gregory of Nyssa and his account of Moses’ journey into the divine darkness; of Julian of Norwich’s humble hazelnut in which the entire cosmos can be seen and apprehended; of Teresa of Avila’s silkworm and the mysterious work of spiritual transformation to which it points and perhaps offers access. Here we encounter language that evokes, opens up and finally falls silent before the mysterious experience of being immersed in the divine.
How confident can we be, when we listen to someone from the nineteenth or sixteenth or fourth century speak of such an experience, that we understand what he or she is referring to or what precisely it means? Also, how much commonality [End Page vii] can one expect or hope to find among and between different accounts of mystical absorption across a given tradition, or between different traditions? We have learned to be sensitive to the historical, cultural and linguistic specificity of such experiences, and to refrain from moving too quickly or easily to assume similarity between what often turn out to be utterly different experiences. Is this specificity so fundamental that one must always acknowledge difference as the starting point and only move tentatively to seek points of possible commonality? Or can we legitimately look for commonality amidst difference? Further, in inquiring into the meaning of such intense experiences of absorption, how can we learn to be sensitive not only to the personal significance they may have for the one bearing witness but also to the larger social or communal significance of such experiences? In what sense should they be understood as responding to and shaping the life of the larger community, always embedded in and speaking to a particular historical moment?
These are only a few of the questions that arise for those who study, reflect on and write about such experiences. But they recur often. And they echo some of the central concerns found among the contributions in this issue of Spiritus. Such questions are neither as abstract or abstruse as they first appear. Inquiring carefully into the character and context of deep spiritual experiences in this way can help to illuminate their possible meaning, for both individuals and communities, and help us overcome the kinds of distortions or caricatures to which they are too often subjected. Further, it can help us hone our own interpretive work by inviting an ever-closer attention to the particular...